By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
T.I received my copy of an anthology edited by Ben Gwin in the mail today. It consists of short stories and poems about Pittsburgh. Along with others, it has a story from C and a story I wrote. Her story is about crouching in a house and living with a man she had a messy relationship with. She used the same pseudonym she had used in her letters to prisoners for years.
I started thinking about the last trip we’d taken together. It was last summer. I’ve always made it difficult for her to skip trains for years. But I finally came over and admitted that I thought it was going to be fun. We drove her truck into a town in Maine. There was a small train station there. The plan was to head north for a short trip and go to Stephen King’s house. We wanted to walk around town and see all the places from his books. She had planned everything very well: where to get off the truck, where to sneak into the yard, where to sit while we wait for the train without the cop seeing us.
The sun was setting as we made our way to the train tracks. We walked down a residential street, cut down some trees, crept to a clearing and found the square. She said it must be where the hobos waited for trains because of the empty beer crates and the remains of a fire. I sat on a concrete pipe. She was sitting on an overturned cucumber pail. There were trees between us and the tracks. It was summer and it was damp, but it was starting to cool.
We waited. Many riding trains were waiting, she explained to me. I put on a long-sleeved shirt to keep the mosquitoes off my arms. Instead, they started eating my knuckles. We made fun of each other for a while, talked, took turns looking at the tracks and exploring the forest. The night had spread like blue ink.
Finally a train came down the tracks. It stopped. In the distance we heard workers talking. Their voices grew louder. They approached us. Then they stopped talking. We ducked and crawled into the brush. They shone flashlights over the area where we were hiding. After a few minutes they moved on.
She motioned for me to follow her. She went through a couple of leads. I tried very hard not to make a lot of noise when walking over the gravel. We made it past the watchtower and walked along the train. A while went by and she told me it wasn’t the right thing to do and we would have to go back and wait a little longer. So we did it.
It was getting late. She unpacked her tarpaulin and we spread it out on a flat spot on the floor. We rolled out our sleeping bags. She got into hers and I got into mine. She started talking about her ex, who she wrote the story about. He lived like that now. She didn’t want to meet him. I did what I always did when she brought it up. I told her it was okay we wouldn’t meet anyone and I would be with her if we did. I pulled the sleeping bag over my face to keep the mosquitoes away, but they buzzed and bite and were relentless.
A train rumbled down the tracks. We both hopped up and pulled out of our pockets. After rushing to where we could see it, it turned out to be an Amtrak.
We started talking about the past, our childhood. It was a subject that none of us went too far with for most people. We lay there and exchanged war stories, some of which we had both told before. We got into hell and perseverance and apparitions. But after a while it kept coming back to us, laughing and joking and planning adventures.
I woke up at dawn when the ground shook and a train creaked. I got out of the sleeping bag and watched as our train probably pulled the tracks away from us. We missed it. I looked over at her sleeping bag. She was still outside. I didn’t want to wake her up and tell her about the train. I crawled back into my pocket. Everything was soaked with dew; My sleeping bag, the tarpaulin, my backpack.
The sky was blue. The sky was purple. The sky was yellow. She woke up.
We sat there a little longer and waited for another train. As the day went on, it got hotter. Out of boredom, we picked wildflowers and put them in a barrel. Rusted beer cans and candy bar wrappers stood under standing water. The flowers floated on the water. Our game was to cover the entire surface with them. Around noon we decided to abandon the train schedule, reduce our losses and go swimming in the sea.
We drove down to the cliffs where my favorite lighthouse was. Stacked stones lay in front of the beach. The sun had made them very hot. The sand was covered with broken shells and dried seaweed. It all hurt to step on and reaching the ocean seemed to get better and better. We got to the water and it was so damn cold. I pushed her into the waves. We swam out a bit. I started picking up clumps of algae and throwing them at them. She tried to get revenge, but when she tossed it the wind blew it back in her face. She had all these wet pieces on her. I said she do my job for me. She told me I was the fakeest hobo in the history of trains.
After swimming, we climbed a chain link fence and stepped into an abandoned army fortress. The flora climbed out of every crevice, growing thick and large.
We went up the cliffs to the lighthouse. Then she went back to her truck. She drove us to Bangor and we saw all of the Stephen King sights. I got her to put her arm in the sewer that inspired IT.
On the way back we told each other stories. She was a gifted writer. I really liked the story of how her parents met. I let her tell me again. She rolled her eyes and went inside. I would always forget the details until she started telling them all over again, then it all came back to me.
I’m having trouble thinking about all of these details now and wish I could ask her, but 7 days ago I received a phone call stating that she had committed suicide.
I spoke to her on the phone a few weeks ago. She said she was not doing well. A few hours later she sent me a text telling me that she was checking into the hospital, she was a mess, she wanted help. She called me every day while she was there. We had long conversations. At the end of her stay, she seemed to be better. She really wanted to check out.
As we sat in this train yard – breaking sticks into smaller sticks, writing our names on things, sitting, talking – I told her that there were people who came and went in your life and that she wasn’t one of those to me. I honestly told her that I knew we would know each other for the rest of our lives, I’d still bug her at 90 that, despite all my nonsense and teasing, I really liked her. She said she was glad we were friends, she wasn’t going anywhere.
Last night in my car I was trying to think of someone to talk to about her death. That is, someone I want to talk to. The only person I could find that I could trust was her. I could call C, I thought. Then I remembered.